“Spanish poetry of the late seventeenth century and of the eighteenth is not very interesting, and that of the early nineteenth contains nothing that was not done better in France, in Britain, or in Italy,” or so say J. M. Cohen in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse (1988, p. xxxvi), and thus he skips from almost two hundred years from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (“the last considerable poet of the Spanish Golden Age”) to Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (“the greatest of Spain’s poets of the 19th century”). What is the greatest etc. like?
What is poetry? You ask
as you fix your blue eyes on mine.
What is poetry! And it’s you who ask me?
Poetry… it is you.
Hmm. Yuck! What goo. This is Michael Smith, not Cohen, in Collected Poems (Rimas) (Shearsman, 2007, p. 65). The English is nothing, but the Spanish is something:
¿Qué es poésia?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poésia! ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poésia… eres tú.
The sentiment is still trivial, but there is poetry here, particularly in the rhythm and the repeated vowel sounds. That musical second line, for example, with its “i u i u i u,” resonating with the later repeated “tú.” The rhymes and near-rhymes are unusual for Bécquer, but the mastery of assonance is not.
Although this poem does not seem to do all that much, it contains almost all of Bécquer’s subject matter. He wrote love poems, expectant, joyous, anguished, and despondent, most of which also seem to be about poetry as much a woman. He died young, having written poems for about a decade and leaving just one posthumous book, Rimas (1871). The poems are from manuscript, so an editor can arrange them as he likes. In the Collected Poems I am reading, a sort of story is formed in which poetry is replaced by (or turns into?) a woman who, sadly, dies, allowing the poet a full range of passionate poetic moods.
I find it hard not to mock, gently, lightly, lovingly, such a purely Romantic artist. Another kind of reader, perhaps younger, may well take him more seriously. He and I both take Bécquer’s vowels seriously (I am switching to Cohen’s prose translation):
Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales
The black swallows will return to hang their nests on your balcony, and once more, as they sport, to knock with their wings against its window-panes,
pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha al contemplar,
aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres…
ésas… ¡no volverán!
but those that stopped their flight to observe your beauty and my good fortune, those who learnt our names… they… will not return!
Two more stanzas follow with similar “Something (honeysuckles, words of love) will return, but the ones who were here when we were happy will not return." The rhythm is that of a song, perhaps a flamenco; I in fact have a tune in mind and if you were here I could sing it for you. Thus if “golondrinas” and “colgar” and “cristales” and “llamarán” do not rhyme, the singer can stretch the “a” sound as if they do. I also recommend that the singer employ a dramatic pause (and, if dressed appropriately, a dramatic pose) in the middle of that last line – “ésas [pause, longing gaze into the distance, that flounce of the skirts the flamenco singers do] ¡no volverán!”
It is just a question of finding the right tune.